Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined

Backbench rebellion over parliament’s sidelining during the COVID-19 pandemic seems set to reach a critical point this week. Meg Russell and Lisa James argue that parliament’s crisis-era marginalisation is real, and part of a longer-running trend. So while government concessions now look likely, MPs should accept them only if they are genuine and comprehensive.

Backbench unease over the government’s treatment of parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to a head. On Wednesday, MPs will debate a motion to renew the government’s powers under the Coronavirus Act. But Conservative MPs’ frustration over the government’s handling of the crisis, and particularly its tendency to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, is increasingly evident. 

Earlier this month Charles Walker, joint Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee and former Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, accused the government of treating its backbenchers like dogs. Similar concerns have appeared in the Telegraph and the Times. Now more than 40 Tory MPs have signed an amendment proposed by 1922 Committee Chair Graham Brady to Wednesday’s motion. This would make continuation of ministerial powers conditional on MPs getting a vote on any future coronavirus-related restrictions – whether made under the Coronavirus Act itself or other legislation (such as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984). The amendment may have no formal legal force, and for procedural reasons might ultimately not be voted upon; but its political significance is clear.

Parliament has been sidelined

MPs have genuine cause for complaint: parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic. The most frequent criticism is over the government’s use of delegated legislation. Numerous coronavirus restrictions have been imposed through regulations subject to limited parliamentary oversight, with debate often scheduled long after the restrictions themselves were announced or came into force. A critical report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) noted how the requirement to wear masks on public transport was announced in a Downing Street press conference on 4 June, coming into force 11 days later; yet it wasn’t debated in the Commons until 6 July. Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings 8 days previously, these were not debated in parliament. Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law points out, the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.

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Can Dominic Cummings defy the political laws of gravity?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRecent news has been dominated by Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham. As a serial rule-breaker, he seems intent on flouting the maxim that ‘when the adviser becomes the story, the adviser must go’. But with MPs returning today, other fundamental political rules may not be so easily broken, writes Meg Russell. All Prime Ministers depend on their backbenchers for support and, with Conservative MPs in open revolt over Cummings, Johnson’s backing for him may yet become untenable. In the Westminster system MPs are ultimately in charge, and there are ways in which they could assert their position.

The Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings doesn’t like to follow the rules. That’s not necessarily a statement on his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham – disdain for established rules, and specifically for conventional wisdom that can’t be directly enforced, is what Cummings has long been known for. For some, it’s seen as part of his ‘genius’. From flying a giant inflatable white elephant over the north-east during a referendum that destroyed Labour’s plans for English regional devolution, to the audacious ‘£350 million a week’ for the NHS on the Vote Leave battlebus, to the long-planned ‘people versus parliament’ election of 2019, his boundary-stretching has often proved a winning formula, and delivered for Boris Johnson.

Cummings has long shown particular disdain for traditional political institutions, and their old ways of doing things. He’s well-known for wanting to pursue radical reform of the civil service. Conservative Brexiteer MP Steve Baker, who was among the first to call for him to quit, credits Cummings with Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks, which was overturned in the Supreme Court. That move, like several others associated with Cummings, indicated his view that conventions, or the ‘accepted way of doing things’ count for nothing, while all that matters is the letter of the law. Other examples include suggestions to ‘pack’ the House of Lords with hundreds more Brexit-supporting peers, or to advise the Queen not to sign a rebel bill into law. Indeed ‘Downing Street sources’ went even further late last year, suggesting that Johnson might refuse to abide by a law passed by parliament. Continue reading